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"The arrival of water from the interbasin transfer has led to a €2.5B wealth generation per year"

  • "The arrival of water from the interbasin transfer has led to €2.5B wealth generation per year"

About the entity

Sindicato Central de Regantes del Acueducto Tajo Segura (Central Union of Irrigators of the Tajo Segura Aqueduct)

March 1st 2019 marked the 40th anniversary of the launch of the Tajo-Segura interbasin water transfer. This water conveyance infrastructure brought progress to eastern Spain and allowed turning a semi-arid region into Europe's vegetable garden.

SCRATS, the Tajo-Segura interbasin transfer irrigation farmers union is, since 1982, the leading entity representing farmers in the three Spanish provinces that receive water under this scheme, a platform from which they highlight their success stories and they voice their demands to the relevant authorities.

Lucas Jiménez has been the union’s president since December 2016. Since then, he leads this institution, with three challenges to overcome during his mandate: reducing the water deficit, increase water security and reduce the costs of water and the energy needed to transport it.

March 1st 2019 marked the 40th anniversary of the launch of the Tajo-Segura interbasin water transfer. This water conveyance infrastructure brought progress to eastern Spain and allowed turning a semi-arid region into Europe's vegetable garden

2019 marks the 40th anniversary of the launch of one of the most important pieces of water infrastructure in Spain: the Tajo-Segura interbasin transfer. This water conveyance system takes water to a semi-arid region, contributing to a stabilising the population and positioning irrigation agriculture as the key economic driver in the region. Up to 100,000 jobs depend directly on this scheme, and another 300,000 jobs in the tourism sector depend on it indirectly.

On March 1st, 1979, the water conveyance structure started to bring quality water, for the most part to irrigated land in three eastern provinces: Murcia, Alicante and Almería. Since then, it is the main source of water for these irrigated areas, together with others such as desalination or reclaimed water. In Murcia almost all the water treated is reused.

Question: Looking back, what were the reasons to build the Tajo-Segura interbasin transfer?

Answer: The Tajo-Segura interbasin transfer was first contemplated by the National Hydraulic Works Plan, which, led by Manuel Lorenzo Pardo, was presented in 1933 before the Spanish parliament, although it was never approved.

I will quote the words that explained the proposal of Manuel Lorenzo Pardo to send water to the south-east of Spain: 'Water in the Segura basin is practically depleted, and the huge production potential in the basin awaits new water resources to be realised and contribute to the national economy'. That visionary idea, as well as the arguments behind it, still apply today.

Q: Who benefits from this infrastructure?

A: Unlike what we often think, users do not just include irrigation farmers in three Spanish provinces (Alicante, Almería and Murcia); there are many other others who use the water for different purposes, and depend on the correct operation of the Tajo-Segura interbasin transfer.

A list of users follows. We should specify that, at least concerning the water volume diverted to eastern Spain, we always talk about ideal annual volumes, that is, the amount potentially transferred, as per current regulations and far from a reality that, every hydrological year, does not allow transferring those amounts:

  1. Unión Eléctrica Madrileña (nowadays Naturgy): power generation at the Bolarque II pumped-storage hydropower plant.
  2. South-east irrigation - diverted water (SCRATS): 400+21 hm³/year
  3. South-east water supply - diverted water (Taibilla Canals association of municipalities or MCT): 110 hm³/year, and GALASA, in the province of Almería (9 hm³/year):
  • Taibilla water supply (110 hm³/year):
  • Province of Albacete: 2 Municipalities
  • Province of Alicante: 34 Municipalities
  • Province of Murcia: 43 Municipalities
  • GALASA water supply (9 hm³/year):
  • Province of Almería: 12 municipalities
  1. South-east irrigation - own resources: 87.35 hm³/year
  2. South-east water supply - own resources: 21.67 hm³/year
  3. Water supply to the Tablas de Daimiel wetland from the Upper Tajo: 19.91 hm³/year
  4. Guadiana water supply from the Upper Tajo:  29.86 hm³/year
  5. Compensation to the Llanos de Albacete area (irrigation) due to filtration in the Talave tunnel: 4.17 hm³/year
  6. Compensation to the Hellín area (irrigation) due to filtration in the Talave tunnel: 4.17 hm³/year
  7. Supply to the Júcar River for irrigation in the Llanos de Albacete area (partial replacement of pumped amounts in eastern La Mancha region): 39.3 hm³/year
  8. Supply to the Júcar River for water supply to Albacete: 24 hm³/year
  9. Supply to the Júcar River for water supply to the south-east: 3.64 hm³/year as potential support to the MCT water supply in Alicante and outside the Segura river basin.

Q: What are the advantages in comparison to other alternatives, such as groundwater, desalination or reuse?

A: All water sources are contemplated in the irrigation areas that receive water from the transfer: they are part of the resources used on a daily basis. In our experience, groundwater aquifers have been overexploited and water quality is average, often not suitable for irrigation, unless it undergoes processes to improve it, such as mixing it with other water sources, as it is currently done. In fact, out of the 63 groundwater bodies in the Segura basin, 17 have a good status and 46 have a poor status, either because they are overexploited, because of quantity issues, or because of quality issues.

Concerning the reuse of reclaimed water, regional authorities have done outstanding work over the past few decades. As a result, the percentage of water reused is close to 98% of the effluent in the Region of Murcia, mainly for agricultural purposes, with a smaller portion for recreational uses. According to data from the Segura River Basin Authority, by 2015-2021, water reuse will amount to 124 hm³/year (8% of the gross irrigation demand in the basin).

All water sources are contemplated in the irrigation areas that receive water from the transfer: they are part of the resources used on a daily basis

Desalination has been, for years, part of the set of resources used for irrigation. SCRATS, in collaboration with the Polytechnic University of Cartagena, has been involved in studies to analyse the use of desalinated water in crops and land, considering different scenarios with varying proportions. The presence of boron and the absence of elements such as magnesium and calcium lead us to think that — at least for now— these waters complement other type of resources, in such a way that the mix results in water suitable for all types of crops. It does, however, have a high cost for the user. Not all crops, neither all agricultural holdings — particularly small and medium sized ones — can assume the cost per m3 of using desalinated water exclusively. I believe desalination is one more option, that contributes to the supply whenever the amount of water diverted is very small, or it is impossible to divert water, but cannot be considered as an option to replace the water from the Tajo-Segura interbasin transfer.

Q: 40 years after water started being diverted, what has been the economic impact of the Tajo-Segura interbasin transfer?

A: According to a comprehensive study commissioned by SCRATS to PwC, it is estimated that the arrival of water from the interbasin transfer starting on March 31, 1979, has led to wealth generation amounting to about 2.5 billion euros per year.  That would mean, after 40 years of operation, wealth generation amounting to 100 billion to date. The irrigated land that resulted from the operation of the water conveyance infrastructure is directly responsible for an agri-food industry unique in Europe, and which in 2016 boasted excellent vegetable and fruit production:

Q: What about social aspects?

A: The arrival of water from the interbasin transfer put an end to the rural exodus in many regions. It meant the only way to secure employment and a decent living, something hard to realise in this region. The population no longer emigrated and our region welcomed progress thanks to the water from the interbasin transfer.

Starting in the 80s, the region experienced population growth, undoubtedly linked to water security, which allowed the development of municipalities in the three provinces that use diverted water for irrigation. In fact, according to data from the National Statistics Institute for the 1970-2012 time frame, in Spain as a whole municipalities grew by approximately 35.5%, whereas in municipalities of the provinces that receive water from the interbasin transfer, the population increase was greater: in Alicante, 113%; in Almería, 87.8%, and in Murcia, 77.2%.

Currently, about 100,000 jobs are directly or indirectly related to the primary sector, and another 200,000 jobs are maintained in the tourism sector thanks to the water supplied by the interbasin transfer.

Q: To finish looking into the effects of the interbasin transfer, what has been and is currently its impact on the environment?

A: The semi-desert landscape was replaced in part by 44 million fruit trees and 70,000 hectares of horticultural crops, a symbolic green carpet. The land irrigated with water from the interbasin transfer acts as a true and irreplaceable CO2 sink.

Our irrigation sector should be considered a proactive sector, imitating nature functions and with intrinsic environmental values. Irrigation helps to mitigate excess CO2 in the atmosphere, acts as an efficient barrier to stop desertification and is part of a biological cycle where food is the final product, which is economically, socially and environmentally sustainable.

In addition, as we mentioned earlier, if necessary, the interbasin transfer provides water to the wetlands in the Las Tablas de Daimiel National Park.

Q: Are the regional and national authorities aware of the importance of the Tajo-Segura interbasin transfer for the economy of eastern Spain?

A: I think the answer to that question would be yes. It would be unfair — and strategically unwise — not to recognise the work done by our politicians to defend the interbasin transfer. Politicians from this region have shown, every time they had the chance, unwavering support.

Since it started, irrigation farmers have seen too many fratricidal political debates about the existence and continuity of the Tajo-Segura interbasin water transfer, where the common denominator has been the absence of pragmatic or technical content. The infrastructure was planned, initiated and completed while tiptoeing around three very different forms of government: a republic, a dictatorship and a parliamentary monarchy. It was a state-level undertaking, responsible for any issues that affect it and relevant regulations. The main danger lies in poorly understood regional politics that split up potential solutions and worsens the situation of all those affected. Mistaking the boundaries of river basins for the boundaries of regions is a common error, a consequence of regional politics that see water issues as a way to gain votes, while the truth is the resource is part of our national heritage.

Q: Do you think that the application of the agreement between former minister Arias Cañete and the presidents of the regions affected by the interbasin transfer in 2013 and the ensuing regulations have been satisfactory?

A: What was known as the 'Memorandum Law' brought legal certainty concerning the application of the operating rules for the interbasin transfer. In addition, it enables planning, at least a little, the resources the irrigation farmer will have throughout the hydrological year, thus extending the consumption period, something which did not occur previously.

Experience shows that when reservoir capacity corresponds to level three of the operating rules, the authorities still have ample scope to decide whether to divert water or not. On the negative side, I believe that the threshold below which water is not diverted is too high.

The 'Memorandum Law' brought legal certainty concerning the application of the operating rules for the interbasin transfer

Q: Do you think that the recent ruling by the Spanish Supreme Court cancelling the Tajo River Basin Management Plant because it does not establish ecological flows at Aranjuez, Toledo and Talavera de la Reina will affect the operation of the Tajo-Segura interbasin transfer?

A: There have been several court rulings concerning the establishment of ecological flows. In all of them, the Supreme Court, as a common denominator, declared invalid some articles, therefore the Tajo River Basin Management Plan has a legal void which I don't know how will be resolved, albeit following the established planning procedure. 

In any event, ecological flows are a political decision. They are not based on the Water Framework Directive, which states the need to preserve the quality of water bodies.

The Supreme Court ruling prescribes something well known, which the Tajo Management Plan postponed and the articles about this delay are the ones the ruling cancelled: the requirement to establish a full water flow regime. This can be interpreted either as the criteria in the planning regulation for inter-regional basins (IPH), including maximum flows, minimum flows, the rate of change and most probable annual flows, or it can include, at the very least, the minimum seasonal flows, which could be above or below the current 6 m3 at Aranjuez.

Subsequent rulings only validate the legislation that regulates the interbasin transfer, the MemorandumLaw and Royal Decree 773/2014, rejecting other ones, and rejecting the possibility of establishing higher flows, as established in ETI-2010 of the Tajo Management Plan.

Q: As mentioned in the introduction, agriculture is one of the major users of water from the interbasin transfer. What percentage of water resources is used for agricultural purposes?

A: Ideally, 421 hm3 per year, if water reserves reach the capacity thresholds set by the operating rules. The truth is the average volume diverted is approximately 183 hm3 per year.

Although the legislation planned for 78% of the water diverted per year to be used for agricultural purposes, the truth is 63% of it has been used for irrigation and the remaining 37% has been used for drinking purposes, as this is the priority use.

Q: What price are irrigation farmers paying for water? What is the weight of electricity costs in the water bill?

A: In the 2017-2018 hydrological year irrigation farmers received 110.7 hm³, paying for such volume a total of 22.54 million euros. Therefore the price paid was 0.204 €/m³. If the water tariff had been applied as it used to earlier on, that is, as a sum of three components, the resulting price would have been 0.1178 €/m³.

The cost of electric power linked to irrigation with diverted water, a variable cost of 0.087 €/m³, amounted to 9.63 million euros during this period, which is 43% of the total cost.

80% of the areas irrigated with water from the interbasin transfer have modern irrigation systems, and practically the entire remaining 20% are undergoing modernisation

Irrigation farmer associations consume water produced by the Torrevieja desalination plant at a price of 0.6248 €/m³.

The cost policy is harming the economy of eastern Spain. We pay the highest prices per cubic metre. The tariff is unlike any paid by irrigation users elsewhere in the country.

But even domestic, industrial and commercial water users pay costs well above what their counterparts in the rest of Spain. We need legislative action to correct the injustice that results from living in regions of the country located far away from abundant water resources.

We always understood that the basis for the rate we have been paying for a year and a half was the relation between the service provided and the payment for it. But the new tariff model applied to water from the interbasin transfer is a revolutionary tax. A tax that in the provinces of Alicante, Almería and Murcia amounts to a whopping 18.7 million euros per year (12.9 million to be paid by the irrigation sector and 5.8 million to be paid by homes and business), even if no water is diverted at all due to the restrictions in the operating rules, which in the case of level three, could be up to the discretion of the ministry.

Q: What percentage of the irrigated land receiving diverted water uses modern irrigation systems?

A: About 80% of the areas irrigated with water from the interbasin transfer have modern irrigation systems, and practically the entire remaining 20% are undergoing modernisation. Modern systems entail sustainability and, ultimately, water use efficiency. In eastern Spain, irrigated areas using water from the interbasin transfer aimed for sustainability early on, primarily due to two reasons: the uncertainty and limits around the water volumes diverted, and the huge cost paid for it.

These two reasons by themselves were enough to convince irrigation farmer associations part of the central union, and the farmers themselves, to implemented all type of measures to ensure the efficient use of the water received. These irrigated areas have witnessed the research and adaptation of all kind of advances to strive for efficient water management. We can say that few world regions have introduced water saving technical measures to the same extent as eastern Spain.

Q: To conclude the interview, what are the challenges for irrigation farmers that use water from the Tajo-Segura interbasin transfer?

A: Basically, three: water resources deficit; water security, which is partially addressed with desalination and water reuse; and costs.

Q: What would you like to see as the legacy of your SCRATS presidency?

You become president of SCRATS and it's like a chess game that already started: many moves have already been made, so you think very well what you are going to do so as not to ruin the next moves and the global outcome, where other players will have a leading role in years to come. 37 years defending the interests of irrigation farmers in eastern Spain, and, indirectly, those of the remaining citizens: this is the legacy, not mine, nor the legacy of another president, because it is not a personal effort but a collective one. An effort that — as well as the governing board and the 80 irrigation farmers associations that make up the union —, has involved citizens (to whom we are very grateful), business interests, the press, a portion of academia and local and regional politicians from eastern Spain. Without a doubt, this is because our demands are fair, and they affect everybody to a greater or lesser extent.

During my mandate, I would like to at least set the basis to address the challenges mentioned earlier.

Concerning the water deficit in the Segura river basin and the land irrigated with water from the interbasin transfer, SCRATS and the ministry itself have a study — done by one of the most prestigious engineering firms in Spain — that proposes different solutions in the short, medium and long term, to eliminate the water deficit in the Segura river, which amounts to 400 hm3/year in a typical hydrological year. The deficit doubles during recurrent periods of drought such as the current one, when it becomes absolutely necessary to provide enough certainty to irrigation farmers so that they may proceed with their operations.

Irrigation farmers have seen too many fratricidal political debates about the existence and continuity of the Tajo-Segura interbasin water transfer

After looking into the limited improvements that can be achieved by increasing the efficiency of use of the basin's own resources, the study assessed feasible solutions that, in a relatively short period of time, could, in a rational manner, help reduce water shortage. A brief description of the potential measures follows:

Increase the production of existing desalination plants up to their maximum capacity and use the water for the irrigated areas that depend on water from the interbasin transfer, about 140 additional hm3/year. This has already been requested although the option has some drawbacks, such as the high cost, which farmers cannot assume; we need to find a way to lower the costs so they are equivalent to those in the rest of Spain, or at least reasonable enough to ensure economic activities; it is also necessary to mix those resources with other inland waters so the basin management system improves the quality and quantity of resources. This water source would guarantee a water supply, although still inadequate to meet existing needs.

Use temporarily unused water resources from other basins without such strict administrative or legislative restrictions (Júcar-Vinalopó).

Different solutions are proposed to eradicate the water deficit in the long term, increasing water resource availability in the Segura basin by an additional 400 hm3/year, including interbasin transfers from the Ebro, Duero or Tajo river basins, and different options, all of them technically, socially and environmentally feasible.


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